The House shot down in a surprisingly narrow, bipartisan vote a defunding of NSA surveillance activities offered by a maverick Tea Party GOP congressman and a veteran Democratic stalwart.
And though the Senate was occupied passing a student-loan interest rate compromise Wednesday afternoon, the significance of the pitched battle in the lower chamber was not lost on its members.
The amendment to the defense appropriations bill offered by Reps. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) and John Conyers (D-Mich.) failed 205-217 — a margin that one Democrat said put the White House on notice about the National Security Agency programs unveiled by contractor Edward Snowden.
“National security is of paramount importance, yet the NSA’s dragnet collection of Americans’ phone records violates innocent Americans’ privacy rights and should not continue as its exists today,” Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) said after the vote.
“The U.S. House of Representatives’ bipartisan vote today proposal should be a wake-up call for the White House,” Udall added. “I am urging the president and the NSA to join this growing bipartisan coalition and work with Congress to focus the NSA’s surveillance efforts on terrorists and spies — not innocent Americans.”
After the roll call, 94 Republicans and 111 Democrats voted with Amash, while 134 GOPs and 83 Dems voted against the amendment. The “yeas” included alliances as diverse as Reps. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) and Maxine Waters (D-Calif.). The “no” votes included Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) was among the committee leaders circulating a “dear colleague” letter warning that a vote for the amendment would gut national security.
After the vote, Rogers took a victory lap with Ranking Member Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.).
“The program addressed gaps in the nation’s ability to track terrorists planning attacks in the United States. Over the years, it has proven effective in identifying and disrupting multiple terrorist threats and saving countless American lives. The charge that the program tramples on the privacy of citizens is simply wrong,” the pair said in a joint statement. “This program balances our duty to protect the privacy of our fellow Americans with the equal duty to protect the nation.”
“As the bill moves to conference with the Senate, we will work to foster stronger public confidence in the program’s privacy protections to ensure that we retain this important national security tool,” Rogers and Ruppersberger added.
The amendment debate took on shades of Sen. Rand Paul’s (R-Ky.) filibuster on drones, stealing the top spots on Twitter’s trending topics and bringing groups such as Anonymous to the side of the GOP lawmaker. One noticeable cheerleader was Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald, who broke the Snowden story.
But whereas one Democrat stepped in to help Paul with his 13-hour filibuster, party lines came crashing down over the Amash amendment as lawmakers stepped to the pro and con microphones.
Amash and Conyers were joined on the amendment to block telephone metadata collection funding for the NSA by Reps. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), Tom Massie (R-Ky.) and Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.).
“Our amendment would have ended the NSA’s overbroad collection of Americans’ information by limiting the FISA court’s collection of telephone records to only those records that pertain to a person who is actually the subject of an investigation. We should gather information about potential terrorists, but there is no reason that the NSA needs the personal information of our friends and neighbors who are not even under any investigation,” Polis said.
“The government’s overly broad collection of telephone meta-data began as part of the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping programs under the Patriot Act, which is one reason I have been a vocal opponent of the Patriot Act,” he added. “However, I believe that even many Americans who supported the Patriot Act never intended that it would allow for the indiscriminate collection of Americans’ telephone calls to their families, colleagues, and friends.”